Thursday, February 10, 2011

SCA vs House Resolution 13 - In God We Trust

The Secular Coalition for America has designed a letter to be sent to representatives to oppose House Resolution 13, which endorses the national motto, "In God We Trust".

(See: SCA's Letter to Members of the House Judiciary Committee -- Feb. 4, 2011)

I do not think that a team of the best marketing minds in America could have designed a more impotent and ineffective communication.

Let us be honest about the intent and effect of this legislation. The people who favor it do so because it constitutes an official message from the government of the United States to the people that citizens who trust in God are more acceptable than those who do not.

The message naturally appeals to those who trust in God. They relish being officially recognized by this government as its preferred citizens.

WE trust in God. Do you want to be one of us? Then trust in God. Do you not trust in God, then you are not one of us.

A rich history of discrimination does not provide an argument in its defense. The fact that I can find quotes from the Founding Fathers defending the inferiority if women and blacks would not serve as an argument in favor of discrimination against women and blacks. A law referring to these in a list of "Whereas" clauses would not yield the conclusion that continued discrimination is legitimate. Nor is the fact that the government itself participated in these practices a legitimate defense of the claim that it continue to do so.

As you know, the phrase, "all men are created equal" was approved by a body where a substantial portion of its members owned slaves. Many who did not own slaves still approved of the practice. Only a minority disapproved.

Certainly they held to very admirable ideals. Yet, they were human, and, in practice, often fell short of their own principles.

Consequently, when we look back on their accomplishments, we sometimes find that their principles and their practices take two different routes. When they do, we are forced to make a choice. Are we going to endorse their principles and choose a more consistent set of practices? Or are we going to follow their practices and abandon their principles?

In principle . . . in principle . . . is the message that the government finds those citizens who trust in God more acceptable than those who do not a mark of good government?

Remember, the Founding Fathers adopted its principles regarding church and state from what, to them, was recent history. They had learned from bitter experience that a government that endorses one religion over others leads to a nation soaked in blood and violence.

If a government can brand citizens as unacceptable based on a lack of belief in God - if we do not accept in principle that this is a bad idea - then the government may also, in principle, brand citizens as unacceptable if they do not accept Jesus as their lord and savior, or if they fail to recognize that there is only one God and Mohammed as His prophet.

Worse, this act endorses the claim that it is legitimate for a government to divide its citizens into two classes - a superior class that trusts in God and an inferior class that does not. It endorses the practice of raising this form of discrimination to the level of national motto. This says to the world, "Of all of the things we value - of all of the things that identify us as Americans - we hold the principle of dividing citizens into classes based on their religious beliefs to be the most important."

In principle . . . In principle . . . Does this mark America as a great society?

This motto, "In God We Trust", does not come from the founding fathers. They gave us a different motto. They gave us the motto, E Pluribus Unum. From many, one. From many states, one nation. From many people, from many cultures, one nation. From those who trust in God, and from those who do not, one great nation.

The founding fathers opted for a national motto that aimes to unite Americans. The legislature today prefers a motto that divides Americans.

Nothing could be clearer. Nothing could be more obvious. The intent of "In God We Trust" is right there on its face for all to see - to cleave the nation into two parts, "we" who trust in God, and "they" who do not. "We" divided from "They". Us versus "Them".

Can you truly believe that this is what the Founding Fathers, on their best days, if they were to fully embrace in practice the principles on which they sought to build our nation - would have wanted? One nation . . . divided between 'we' and 'they' on religious grounds, officially endorsed by the government as its greatest value?

9 comments:

supersage400 said...

Why do you say that this letter is so ineffective and impotent? Though it doesn't stress it as much or express it quite as eloquently, it does seem to echo your concern about the motto's dividing effect, separating and singling out non-theists and non-Christians and treating them as inferior.

Besides that, it touches on many other reasons the house shouldn't reaffirm the motto and goes further by saying it should instead focus on eliminating other uses of God in government settings, such as the oath of office for federal employees.

The letter seems pretty well-written, persuasive, and well-argued to me, but I'm not sure how letters like these should be written to persuade politicians, so I'm not sure if it would be taken the same way in a political/legal context. Is it ineffective and impotent because it isn't catered specifically to that kind of audience?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

supersausage400

I first have to thank you for the "express it quite as eloquently" comment. That's one of the things I was aiming for, but it is not easy to tell if it was successful.

As for the rest . . .


Why do you say that this letter is so ineffective and impotent?

Mostly because I have been reading or hearing exactly the same things being said for more than a dozen years to no political effect. If these arguments had any social or political efficacy, we should have seen some effect by now. The absence of any effect should be taken as proof of ineffectiveness, and a reason to try a different tactic.

These are the same points Michael Newdow was raising in his lawsuits . . . and they have been wholly ineffective. If anything, they have solidified the courts against his position, and put judges in fear of ever publicly siding with him in virtue of the public outcry that results.

While I hear these arguments repeated year after year, more and more plaques get posted in schools and government buildings, and more and more resolutions get passed endorsing those moves. More and more laws get passed requiring the Pledge of Allegiance and more and more emails get circulated using the motto and pledge as proof that we are a christian nation and those who disagree should leave the country.

The letter may "seem pretty well-written, persuasive, and well-argued," but in terms of measurable effect, it is a repeat of tried and true impotence.

There is no better evidence of ineffectiveness than the absence of an effect.


I'm not sure how letters like these should be written to persuade politicians, so I'm not sure if it would be taken the same way in a political/legal context.

Attempting to persuade politicians through letters is a waste of effort. In most parts of the country, a politican who votes against this resolution had better have a new job lined up after the next election. He has just ended his career.

To "convince" the politican, you have to convince the public. The purpose of a letter such as this is not so that the politican will read it and change his vote - that won't happen. It is to create a press release that puts the letter out into the public where the people will read it and, in turn, put pressure on the politician one way or the other.

While the vote this time around is already lost, the question is (or should be) on building a foundation for some future change. Will such a resolution be less popular next year than this, and less popular 2 years from now than today. Where the project is building for the future, the SCA letter is a waste of time and, more importantly, a waste of opportunity.

supersage400 said...

Since the goal is to change the opinion of the public, then, I think that's going to be pretty difficult. As you frequently acknowledge, a lot of this public opinion is fueled precisely by the constant appearance of God and the emphasis on division in the pledge and the motto and federal hearings. It seems to be a vicious cycle: opinion is formed by the problem, but to get rid of the problem we have to change opinion. This problem is compounded by the fact that religion is taken so seriously in many states, which makes it seem even more impossible to persuade many that these things should be dropped. Overall, it seems like no action is going to have a hugely measurable effect. How, in this situation, can anything useful be done?

The Heathen Republican said...

I don't get as excited about "under God" and "in God we trust" as you seem to. Our freedom of religion means that we are all free to express our religious beliefs, especially in public. If it's only allowed privately, that's no kind of freedom.

You act as if the statements themselves have some power to convert children or the rest of us non-believers. Neither statement is theological in nature. I don't feel tempted to believe in god when I hear the words "in God we trust."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Since the goal is to change the opinion of the public, then, I think that's going to be pretty difficult.

Yep.

If the goal is to change political votes WITHOUT changing the opinion of the public - that is going to prove to be utterly future. In a contest between pretty difficult and utterly futile, I suggest the former.

As you frequently acknowledge, a lot of this public opinion is fueled precisely by the constant appearance of God and the emphasis on division in the pledge and the motto and federal hearings. It seems to be a vicious cycle: opinion is formed by the problem, but to get rid of the problem we have to change opinion.

Yep.


This problem is compounded by the fact that religion is taken so seriously in many states, which makes it seem even more impossible to persuade many that these things should be dropped. Overall, it seems like no action is going to have a hugely measurable effect. How, in this situation, can anything useful be done?

The effective thing to be done is to launch an effective campaign objecting to the idea that governments may declare that citizens who do not support a nation under God or who do not trust in God are inferior to those who do. It is to generate an emotional conflict between those parts of the vicious cycle that ought to be abolished, and a higher (better) set of values that people have reason to adopt and to favor.

This is why I argue that the opposition to "under God" and "In God We Trust" should focus on its violation of principles of respect for fellow citizens. "Under God" states that atheists are as un-American as those who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. "In God We Trust" is a government proclamation that it prefers citizens who trust in God to those who do not.

I argue that most people would view these types of statements as inherently unfair. In a small segment of the population, this will set up a conflict that they will resolve by deciding to oppose the Pledge and the Motto as written. This, in turn, will weaken the force of these practices among their friends and associates, which, in turn, will further weaken the effect of these practices, further liberating more minds.

In this, the focus is creating an emotional conflict between these practices and the higher principles (values) that, it can be effectively argued, people have reason to adopt and promote. It isn't done by reciting history that a person can easily dismiss as either false (made up by those who have an agenda to push) or trivially unimportant.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The Heathen Republican

I don't get as excited about "under God" and "in God we trust" as you seem to.

That may be true. However, I would wager it is because you fail to appreciate some of the facts about the case.

I would suggest that you do not appreciate the effect this has in ensuring that atheists have virtually no chance of winning an election, that atheists are excluded from positions of public trust, that politicians can declare that "we need common sense judges who realize that our rights come from God and that is the kind of judge that I will appoint" without a word of protest.


Our freedom of religion means that we are all free to express our religious beliefs, especially in public. If it's only allowed privately, that's no kind of freedom.

There is nothing that I write that denies a person's freedom to express their religious beliefs in public. There is nothing that I have written that argues for making it a crime or for subjecting people to violence for expressing a religious belief. You will not find me arguing that violence may be done to a person carrying a sign that says, "In God We Trust", or posting it in their business, or as a bumper sticker on their car. Nor will I argue that violence may be done to somebody who puts it into a play, or broadcasts it on a radio or television program.

Yet, at the same time that I grant them the right to say these things in public, I have just as much right to speak or write to condemn them for it. I have just as much right to say or to write that decent people would not say such things, that at best they are wrong, and at worst they are bigots.

People also have a right to say that blacks are inferior to whites. They have the right to say it. I have the right to condemn them for it. And, furthermore, if any government should repeat that message - if any government should put on its money, "We prefer white citizens" (as it says "We Prefer Citizens Who Trust in God") or write into a pledge of allegiance to "One White Nation" (as it currently has citizens pledge to "One Nation Under God") that these are violations of basic principles of fairness and justice.

As I have argued in the past, a right to freedom of speech is a right to freedom from violence. It is not a right to immunity of condemnation. The right to freedom of speech does not mean that everything you say must be treated by others as right.


You act as if the statements themselves have some power to convert children or the rest of us non-believers.

They have the power to persuade children. Furthermore, they have a power to give children such an emotional attachment to certain beliefs that those beliefs become immune from reason and generate a great deal of psychological trauma if the child (and later adult) come to doubt those beliefs.

The fact that you do not feel tempted to believe in God when you hear the words is irrelevant.

The fact that a six-year-old is being told, "If you trust in God then you are one of us and you belong with us, but if you do not then you are an outsider - somebody that we who trust in God can look down upon, that it will put you at risk of teasing and bullying from your pears who have learned this lesson that those who trust in God are superior to those who do not," these facts are extremely relevant.

Gingerbaker said...

If recent polling is accurate, then freethinkers may actually comprise the 2nd to 4th largest religious denomination in the U.S. !(Harris poll says 18% of adults)

If true, it is time we started throwing our weight around by announcing our status.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Gingerbaker

Do you have a theory as to why atheists are so politically impotent in spite of their numbers?

I do.

It has been shown that when you divide a group up into parts on any criteria at all - gender, skin color, eye color, even 'those on the left side of the room' vs 'those on the right side of the room', and give them a message that one group is superior to the other, the members of the 'superior' group tend to become confident and assertive, while the members of the 'inferior' group become passive.

Again, this is the power of 'under God' and 'In God We Trust'. It's effect is to cause children who believe in God to become assertive and confident adults, and to teach those who do not to become timid and passive adults.

Anecdotal evidence about how Uncle Jim never became timid and passive are not evidence against this. It is found in the fact that atheists are politically impotent in spite of their numbers - a fact quite independent of Uncle Jim's alleged assertiveness.

In fact, I think that this provides a part of the reason why the Atheist Coalition for America uses such timid and impotent political arguments. They have internalized the timid dispositions that come from being told as children that those who trust in God and who support a nation under God are superior to those who do not.

This, quite naturally, makes politically impotent arguments more comfortable than effective arguments.

TGP said...

I'm all for "In God We Trust" and "Under God" as long as you can get all those believers to agree on which God they're talking about.

Else, let's just move to electronic funds with a link to a current religious demographic breakdown of the nation attached.